Back to basics
It's a vision of the future - grounded in the past. New Education Minister Christopher Pyne invites us to imagine classrooms where teachers return to old-school instruction - becoming more a deliverer of facts, less a convener of activity-based learning. He wants young readers to sound out words - and public school administrators to enjoy more of the freedoms of their private education counterparts.
The so-called history wars of the Howard government era are back with a vengeance: Pyne believes the national curriculum has too much focus on progressive causes and ignores the role of the Coalition political parties in building Australia.
And in an ominous sign for the government body that oversees curriculum development, Pyne warns the agency it is "not the final arbiter on everything that is good in education" and he will take a much more hands-on role.
It's a crusade that Pyne appears to relish.
"I don't mind if the left want to have a fight with the Coalition about Australia's history," the minister says in his new Parliament House office, where he has on his wall a 1963 Liberal Party flyer denouncing Labor's faceless men.
"People need to understand that the government has changed in Canberra, that we're not simply administering the previous government's policies and views. I know that the left will find that rather galling," he says with a grin, "and while we govern for everyone, there is a new management in town."
It is a firm message and one that shows Pyne's determination to engineer a shake-up in the education sphere. Not everyone is keen on the changes. Some educators have warned against a return to "chalk-and-talk" teaching. And the education union and historians have told Pyne not to meddle in the curriculum for political reasons.
Pyne - a key figure in the Coalition's brutal political campaign against the Labor minority government of the past three years - has long side-stepped the debate over increasing school funding by singling out teacher quality as the most important issue.
Now, having been sworn in as Education Minister in a government with a thumping majority in the lower house, he has the opportunity to push through change. "My instincts tell me that a back-to-basics approach to education is what the country is looking for, what parents feel comfortable about," he says in an interview with Fairfax Media this week.
One of his targets is child-centred learning. He defines this as an approach whereby the child learns through activities, projects and research - rather than being instructed directly in facts. "I'm sure there's a place for child-centred learning but unless children are given the basic skills and knowledge required in an area, it's hard to expect them to successfully research an area of study," Pyne says.
He would prefer greater use of direct instruction - or as one education expert explains, "telling" children information. Pyne also condemns those who have shunned the use of phonics in the early years of school. Phonics involves teaching children the sounds of letters and groups of letters, allowing them to work out how to say words they have not previously encountered. This approach is often contrasted with "whole language" - whereby students are taught whole words and focus on meaning.
The education head at University of Technology Sydney, Professor Rosemary Johnston, says phonics already plays an important role in teaching literacy. "My colleagues and I have written the textbook that a number of universities use," she says. "In that we make it clear there is an important place for phonics, as any parent would know. People haven't turned their back on phonics; that may have been true 20 years ago, but it's certainly not true now."
Johnston says teaching styles are complex because humans are complex, doubts there is a classroom anywhere in the country that does not have a place for the type of direct instruction Pyne favours.
"Everything that you do there is trying to create an effective learning experience, so there are times when you are telling, times when you are sharing knowledge, and times when you are observing and listening to how that knowledge is becoming part of the child's knowledge," she says.
Asked how he can change the teaching culture, Pyne says the Commonwealth has a big influence over the training of educators at universities and will also work closely with the states and territories to improve professional development. He acknowledges he will not be able to "overturn" child-centred learning overnight.
Pyne will "move quickly" to set up a ministerial advisory group to recommend ways to improve initial teacher training. He believes universities should take a more practical approach to training teachers and focus less on theory.
"One of the criticisms that principals, new teachers and the students at university make of teacher training courses and the teachers being produced is that they have not been trained in a practical way to teach students, that they've had too much emphasis on theory and not enough time in the classroom, and in some cases they're under-prepared for what hits them when they're standing in front of a class in charge of that group of pupils."
Pyne says he wants more rigour in university entry requirements but he does not favour a minimum ATAR score. Instead, he has floated the idea of prospective teachers also being scrutinised on their commitment to the field. Teaching should be their first or second preference, not their last.
"The medical schools have got interviews with potential medical students and we believe that an examination of a body of work from potential teaching students would be a good measure to introduce in terms of their entrance requirements," Pyne says.
"An interview that asked why they wanted to be teachers in the first place, why they've chosen teaching, I think would be instructive."
Johnston says Pyne is right to highlight the crucial need to provide ongoing teacher learning and development. She supports the idea of interviews with prospective teaching students but notes they were dropped some time ago for financial reasons.
"You can imagine how long it takes," she says of interviewing students about their commitment to the teaching vocation. "I like the idea of interviews but governments have to resource it."
Other looming changes are a review of the publication of national literacy and numeracy test results on the My School website. Pyne wants to speed up the move to online-based examinations.
Big changes are in store for the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, which administers the My School website and national testing. ACARA will be stripped of its data, reporting and compliance responsibilities, which will transfer to the Education Department. The body will be left to focus on curriculum matters and its budget will be cut by $23 million over four years.
But even with the agency focused only on curriculum development, Pyne appears unlikely to give its advice much weight.
"I don't believe in handing over responsibility for government policy to third parties," he says. "The Westminster system of government requires ministers to take a hands-on approach to matters within their portfolio."
Pyne says the national curriculum needs to be reviewed to ensure it reflects "the whole of the Australian story" rather than taking a bleak, "black armband view of Australia's history". It's a comment that former prime minister John Howard made many times - and was later countered by Julia Gillard declaring the nation must also avoid taking a "white blindfold" view.
Pyne says he does not want to whitewash history.
"Sure, there are things we need to know about that in the past have been less than edifying, because that informs what we know about ourselves as a nation. But equally we need to know about the things that formed our society and why it is the way it is today," he says.
"I think there are some glaring examples in the national curriculum, particularly the history curriculum, where the non-Labor side of our history has been downplayed in favour of things like the union movement's involvement and the Labor Party's involvement.
"Given that the Coalition has governed for two-thirds of the last 60 years it seems unusual that Labor would be in the curriculum and the union movement's role but not the role of industry and the non-Labor side of politics in building our great country."
Those involved in writing the curriculum strongly reject the claims, saying it includes a range of topics and is not ideologically skewed. Capitalism, nationalism and British settlement are among topics examined.
Canberra writer David Stephens - secretary of a new group called Honest History to be launched next month - says history is much more complex than Judeo-Christian values, the ANZAC spirit, Shakespeare, Queen Victoria and the long-serving Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies.
Honest History - which lists former Australian War Memorial historian Peter Stanley as its president - is being created ahead of the 100-year anniversary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli to contribute to debates about the event's significance.
Stephens says Pyne's comments about the black armband view of history implies there are people who only look at the negative side.
"We need to confront both the good and the bad," he says.
Australian Education Union vice-president Correna Haythorpe says curriculum matters are best left to the experts, arguing it is not acceptable for politicians to try to impose their own views of history.
Haythorpe condemns Pyne's "distractions" from the school funding debate - and urges the minister to focus on implementing the multi-billion-dollar reforms that flowed from David Gonski's sweeping review.
She says the federal government must sign up the three holdout jurisdictions of Western Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory to the needs-based system targeting disadvantage - and those governments must not be allowed to chip in less of the funding share than other states.
"Clearly we're in an untenable position because the new federal government has articulated no position on how schools across the country will be resourced long-term," Haythorpe says.
Pyne is vague about the way forward on school funding. His mantra is that Labor "left us a mess" and the Coalition will move calmly and methodically "to fix that mess". He will not elaborate much beyond saying he is consulting with the states and territories and his department to find a solution.
There is no detail about what will be on offer for the three jurisdictions that did not sign up to a deal with Labor before the election.
Pyne says he was clear during the campaign that the Coalition would offer the same federal funds that were available in the coming four years, but he will not clarify whether that includes the $1.2 billion that was removed from the federal budget as a result of three jurisdictions not signing up.
Pyne claims to have hit the ground running.
Asked when he might know how he will deal with the funding situation, Pyne says: "Hopefully sooner rather than later."
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